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Narratives artist Laura Nathan on collaboration and creating art in Manchester Jewish Museum
23 March 2023
Laura Nathan is a textile artist and facilitator at Venture Arts. She was one of twelve artists who took part in our 'Conversations Series III: Narratives' residency. Below she talks about her experience creating art through exploring a shared family history of the Holocaust with artist Sarah Lee.
"I’ve been a textiles facilitator at Venture Arts since 2009 supporting individuals to develop creatively, and this role gives me huge satisfaction. However, with both my children now in school, being selected for the Narratives residency was the perfect opportunity to revisit my own art practice once again. Narratives was the third residency programme within 'Conversations Series', which aims for the creation of new work through exchanges of art and ideas between Venture Arts artists and artists responding to an open call.
During the Covid 19 lockdown, Venture Arts artist Sarah Lee and I discovered a shared Jewish heritage during one of our virtual sewing sessions. I had shown Sarah the tapestry frame I had inherited from my grandma who had come over from Germany in 1939 as a refugee on the Kindertransport programme. Sarah then shared that she had a German grandfather who became a Prisoner of Conscience after standing up against the Nazi regime. In later years he had become a wood carver, which helped him process his experiences. I then spoke about my Polish grandfather who was a Nazi concentration camp survivor who settled in England and became a tailor. We reflected on our grandparents’ creative practices, which helped them process their experiences and navigate their futures. And so, a rich conversation emerged which really highlighted the essence of the Conversation Series programme.
Based at Manchester Jewish Museum, we continued our dialogue throughout the 16-week Narratives residency. Sarah was wowed by the synagogue’s Gothic architecture and stained-glass windows, and she incorporated these within illustrations of her grandfather’s woodcarvings. I would then digitally print Sarah’s designs onto fabric and Sarah would then embroider into these, delving deeper into her family history through her intricate stitched annotations.
My project inspiration came from hearing an extract of my grandmother’s oral history testimony, which was included in a film within the Jewish Museum’s 'Journeys' gallery. Hearing her recall her parents taking her to the docks but not saying goodbye because “they probably couldn’t face it” really hit me. I then discovered that Manchester Jewish Museum housed my grandma’s full oral history testimony, and I created a short audio piece with extracts of her testimony. My grandma’s words accompanied me throughout the residency and the audio piece became part of my final exhibition installation.
Coincidentally, as Narratives was starting my sister attended a family history research session at the Jewish Museum facilitated by the Weiner Holocaust Library. She received a large collection of documents detailing both my grandparents’ experiences including Concentration Camp records, medical clearance certificates and immigration documents. I used the residency as a chance to explore these documents and I also focused on a collection of letters sent to my grandma from her parents before they were deported to Riga in 1942. I digitally printed the documents and letters onto fabric, cut them up line by line, then wove them together.
I lost track of the hours spent working on this piece and it often became hypnotic until I was hit with a line of graphic detail surrounding the fate of family members, or the names of concentration camps including Auschwitz and Dachau. This was a stark reminder of my grandparent’s dark history and left me bewildered as to how they managed to carve out relatively normal lives going forward. I ended up creating a four-metre weave incorporating every single document.
The third piece I worked on during the residency was an unfinished tapestry representing my great grandparents unfinished lives and the ongoing trauma my grandma bore as she navigated her new life in England. Printed onto tapestry fabric is the only photograph she brought with her of her parents when she came to England. I sat in Manchester Jewish Museum working on this piece using the embroidery yarns and tapestry frame inherited from my grandmother. The connection I felt using my grandma’s materials whilst focusing intensely on the portrait was very profound. Museum visitors would ask me questions, and many would share snippets of their family histories. It was a really beautiful exchange, highlighting the power of creating art within a public space and the dialogues that emerge.
The art work I created during Narratives was exhibited at The Manchester Contemporary, 'Narratives' at The Lowry and is currently in 'Fibres' at AIR Gallery. I’m really looking forward to exhibiting in The Ladies Gallery in Manchester Jewish Museum as the space is filled with inspiration, warmth and symbolism. I also feel a strong connection and gratitude to the whole team of staff and volunteers who supported and made Sarah and I feel so incredibly valued and welcome.
'Narratives: Threads and Testimony' is on display at Manchester Jewish Museum from the 7 April - 9 May 2023, and is the perfect opportunity to not only see our work but to also experience the beauty of the building amongst the fascinating objects, artefacts and stories within it."
EVENT | Meet the Artists Private View
On Sun 16 April the Manchester Jewish Museum are inviting people to a special event, in which there will be an opportunity to meet Laura Nathan and Sarah Lee and discuss the work on show. The event will take place in the Learning Studio and refreshments will be provided. Book your ticket here.